Tuesday, July 10, 2012

XBLA Review: Spelunky

Back when Super Meat Boy came out in 2010, I became addicted to its fine-tuned, masochistic level design and precise controls. I unlocked all of the characters, and was happy to see some familiar indie faces. There was Alien Hominid, Jill, Commander Video, and even the Kid from IWBTG. There was also Spelunky. At the time I hadn't played Spelunky...it wasn't even on my radar. Well, I looked it up and found it was a free (remember when indie games were free?) game that took a little bit of Mario, Castlevania, Spelunker, threw them all into a Rougetype (randomly generated) brand blender, and presto: Spelunky. I loved it, despite its sometimes frustrating control scheme (instead of dedicating unique buttons to bombs and rope, they instead shared an item button that the player had to scroll through and then use the standard action button to use). I never managed to beat it from beginning to end, although I reached the final boss on a number of occasions. Flash forward to July 2012.

After a long time spent waiting and wondering, Spelunky finally arrived on the XBLA. Although it doesn't have a subtitle to differentiate it, it is quite a bit different from its PC counterpart. But before I get to that, let me say quickly what didn't change. The game is still an addicting, challenging rougetype-platformer hybrid that is the very essence of risk/reward style gameplay. It still has a lot of equipable items like the jetpack, climbling gloves, and [Super Mario World] cape. It still has secrets that are rewarding to discover, but not so obscure and illogical that they might as well be input codes (I'm looking at you FEZ...don't worry though, I still love you).  It still has ropes for climbing, bombs for carving out new paths, treasure for hoarding, damsels for rescuing and recovering life, as well as shopkeepers that will kill you with their shotguns if you try to steal from them. It also still has traps that will instantly kill you, enemies that never stop trying to kill you, and a certain Hindu goddess that rewards you for your sacrifices. With all that out of the way, lets move on to what's different!

First and most noticeably, the game has been given a graphical overhaul. Instead of retro pixel style, it is now bubbly cartoon style. It's still beautifully animated, so I'm not going to complain. I've played the original Spelunker on an HDTV (indeed, the same TV I played the XBLA version on), and it can turn a charmingly oldschool pixel style into a shockingly ugly pixel mess. Not a huge deal; just don't play it full screen. Other than the obvious graphical changes, Spelunky's music has also been changed. Most importantly, there are now roughly 4 songs per area, along with unique songs that play during the 'event' rounds. Although I liked the original music, it grew tiresome after the 100th or so loop. The music is much more varied than the original as well; there's music that sounds a lot like it's running on Sega Genesis/Megadrive hardware (specifically the sweet bass lines), there's music that sounds like NES, and there's even a smooth jazz saxophone in a couple songs. I LOVE the majority of the music. On a personal note (get it? note.), I really enjoyed the fact that the time signatures change frequently, not only from song to song, but also within individual songs. I especially enjoy the 5/4 songs that made it into the soundtrack.

Now onto some of the more subtle changes. Firstly, bombs and rope have their own unique buttons; no more hassling around with selecting the proper tool. Beyond that, the general pace and feel of the game seems more or less the same. There are some new events, as well as secret levels and characters. Without spoiling anything, I have to say I really enjoyed the new secret levels. Reaching them is fun in and of itself, but exploring the new areas was a blast. Speaking of new areas, there is now a new ending. By reaching the City of Gold, one can obtain the fabled Necronomicon, which allows the player to reach a new set of levels that are Hell themed after defeating the now not quite so final boss Olmec. I'll probably never make it to Hell, let alone conquer it, but I'm happy for anyone that accomplishes such a Herculean task. If I told you "YOU'RE GOING TO HELL," I might actually be super excited for you, assuming you're playing Spelunky (or Cave Story).

I almost forgot an important addition: multiplayer! Now, unfortunately there isn't any online multiplayer, not for deathmatch or adventure mode. I can understand that lag would make a precise game like Spelunky unplayable, but deathmatch mode is a lot of fun and doesn't require that sort of precision...at least not to the extent that the adventure mode does. Assuming online support doesn't get patched in later, deathmatch mode probably won't get more than a couple test plays with bots before it's abandoned outright by the majority of the playerbase. But enough about the lack of online; back to multiplayer. As stated previously, deathmatch is a lot of fun and plays a bit like Bomberman. There's a ton of arenas, and all of the weapons/powerups that appear in adventure mode appear randomly within crates scattered throughout the arenas. Playing adventure mode with a group is fun too, but probably isn't what most people expected. Being that it's local play only, the game elects player 1 as the 'leader.' Carrying a white flag, the leader is in charge of scrolling the screen while other players try and keep up. It's basically Sonic 2's method for multiplayer...and that's not really a good thing. It's playable, sure, but inevitably the lead player will leave someone behind and UNLIKE Sonic 2, those left behind are killed off (after about 10 seconds) instead of magically reappearing next to the lead player. If only everyone had two tails that they could use to fly at will. That's not to say that multiplayer adventure isn't fun; with the right leader it can be a blast. However, imagining lagless online multiplayer where everyone is allowed their own independently scrolling screen seems like it would be much more fun than what we are stuck with. On a more positive note, I would like to thank whoever was in charge of programming universally earned achievements into the game; most games that support multiplayer, ESPECIALLY XBLA games, don't allow anyone but the primary player to earn achievements. Thankfully everyone who is logged into their gamertag earns any achievements that are earned in a multiplayer Spelunky adventure.

That brings me to the achievements list. XBLA games are now allowed 400 gamerpoints spread across 30 achievements or less. Spelunky takes advantage of this policy, containing 20 achievements instead of the previous requirement of 12. I'll admit, in a game as hard as Spelunky, I would have liked to see those 10 unused achievements used for some of the easier accomplishments, like the act of earning a shortcut from the tunnel man or maybe something deathmatch related. What is there is still good though; basic progression achievements, along with some devilishly hard challenges that involve a full playthough without shortcuts, as well as an achievement for beating adventure mode in multiplayer...which will never happen for roughly 95% of the people who purchased Spelunky. Spelunky also has some avatar awards, so that's a plus.

Another basic nitpick is that despite its added content, Spelunky got rid of some of its original unlockable material, specifically the challenge rooms (Stars, Sun, and Moon). I assume it may appear later as DLC, but I don't see myself purchasing it unless there's also some new stuff attached to it.

Spelunky was released at 1200 MS points, or $15. Although 800 is my personal sweet spot when it comes to most XBLA games, I don't feel cheated for paying $5 more for Spelunky. I've played the game for longer than most retail titles already, sinking roughly 30 hours into it over the course of 5 days. I'm still not finished with it either, not by a long shot, so I feel extremely satisfied with my purchase. If you're a fan of challenging platformers, randomly generated rougetypes, exploration based Metroidvania games, or all of the above, then purchase Spelunky right away. If you're still unsure, try the demo, or better yet, download the original for free here.

Controls: Tight and responsive
Music: Catchy and varied
Graphics: Cute and whimsical
Level Design: Random, but fair
Gameplay: Frustrating, infuriating, but addicting and rewarding
Overall: A fantastic experience for anyone willing to invest the time to master it


Don't like Spelunky? What a casual.

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